Archive for June, 2006

Boarding

June 28th, 2006 by Gene
Boarding
 

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If you fly a lot, listen up. This one’s for you. Getting to your seat without getting tangled up with other passengers. Today. On Engineering Works!

It’s happened to all of us. Standing in the aisle of a crowded airliner while some guy ahead of you jams an overstuffed duffel bag into the overhead bin. It takes forever.

Engineers are working on ways to make boarding faster and smoother. Quicker boarding means expensive airplanes spend less time on the ground and more time moving passengers. That means more profits.

Industrial engineers who are studying the problem say the answer could be to change how passengers board. Most airlines now board passengers so those at the rear sit down first. That makes sense, right? Maybe not, say the engineers.

One new approach they came up with keeps the back-to-front plan, but also boards people sitting in window seats early. One airline that’s trying it had a more than 20 percent drop in departure delays. Another boards passengers strictly according to whether they’re sitting in window, middle or aisle seats. That works pretty well, too.

One of the most low-tech approaches to the problem also works pretty well. Southwest Airlines boards passengers according to how early they check in — no reserved seats. You can sit anywhere there’s a seat. Sounds like guaranteed confusion, but it works. Southwest has some of the fastest turnaround times in the industry.

It’s time for us to get our bags and go. See you next time.

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LCD Bifocals

June 21st, 2006 by Gene
Jumping Egg
 

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If you’re over 40, this one’s for you — high-tech bifocals. We’ll take a peek, today on Engineering Works!

Glasses to help us see better have been around for at least a thousand years. They’ve gotten better since they first showed up in the eleventh-century. But bifocals are still a bother. And if you don’t wear bifocals now, you will. It’s a fact of life as we get older. Our eyes don’t see things both far away and up close as well as they used to.

Engineers are applying high tech to bifocals. They’ve come up with a way to use liquid crystals – the technology that makes flat screen TVs and computer monitors possible – to make bifocals that change their focus for you. at the touch of a switch.

It works like this: the molecules in liquid crystals change the way they’re arranged when you apply an electric current. In glasses with liquid crystals, you could change things like how much they magnify images — bifocals. The engineers say that with flat lenses with liquid crystals arranged in rings like a bull’s eye, you could change the lenses’ focus – almost instantly – by touching a switch.

They’ve tested the idea in the laboratory and with volunteers and it seems to work. For now, you have to hit the switch yourself to change the focus, but future versions could have automatic focusing built in.

We see through our old-fashioned glasses that our time is up. See you next time.

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Jumping Egg

June 14th, 2006 by Gene
Jumping Egg
 

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We’ll bet you have no idea what that was, except that maybe it has something to do with engineering. Stick around we’ll tell you more, today on Engineering Works!

Most of the stuff engineers do is serious. They build bridges, design airplanes, come up with new computers. Sometimes they give colleagues in other fields a hand with odd projects — like making an egg jump.

We don’t know why physicists wanted to know if hard-boiled eggs will jump if they spin really fast. They already knew that if you spin the egg fast enough, it will stand on one end. They must have a good reason. But they needed a special machine to spin it really fast — 1,800 revolutions a minute. That’s where the engineers came in.

The machine the engineers came up with was designed around a heavy copper plate and three high-speed cameras. It does the same thing to the egg you would do if you spun it with a quick twist of your wrist, but lots faster. The high-speed cameras recorded that, yes, the egg jumped — several times — before it stood on end.

Now that we know that the egg jumps, so what? Some scientists say understanding spin could help us understand how storms behave. Or it might help understand how spinning spacecraft behave. The physicists say it was fun to find out.

We’re just about spun out for this time. We’ll see you next time.

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Flying Rat Brain

June 7th, 2006 by Gene
Flying Rat Brain
 

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This one sounds like it came from a bad science fiction movie. But it’s real, we promise. We’ll check it out, today on Engineering Works!

It starts with a brain in a laboratory dish. Well, actually brain cells. From a rat. Biomedical engineers put the cells on top of an array of electrodes in a Petri dish, the saucer-like glass dish found in every life-science laboratory in the world. The cells – neurons – multiplied until they connected up all across the pattern of electrodes.

Then the engineers wrote computer instructions that allow the neurons to monitor the controls of a computer-generated fighter plane and respond to them. If a gust of wind tossed the virtual plane to one side, the neurons could activate the plane’s controls and get it back straight and level.

It’s a long way to where a dish of neurons could actually fly an airplane. But the engineers say it’s a big first step. Eventually, it could mean biological computers that fly reconnaissance aircraft or guide robots in hazardous places. It’s also important because biological brains – rat or human – can analyze and make decisions in situations that baffle conventional computers. Even simple things like telling the difference between two pieces of similar furniture. And it gives researchers a way to watch brain cells as they function. In real time.

Our brain has been functioning on this one just about long enough, so we’ll quit. See you next time.

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